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Plants

He knows their every spine

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Special to The Times

SITUATED at the junction of two dusty rural roads, Wendell “Woody” Minnich’s Antelope Valley home is an unassuming Mediterranean house, surrounded by a tall chain-metal fence and landscaped with small patches of grass and the low-maintenance plants you see everywhere in the Los Angeles desert.

“I picked stuff I wouldn’t have to water,” Minnich says, walking by the garden with a nonchalant shrug.

It’s an ironic comment for Minnich, 58, a retired high school teacher. He is, after all, something of a star to cactus and succulent lovers worldwide, an amateur scientist who’s in demand at places as varied as the San Gabriel Valley Cactus and Succulent Society (he’s vice president), the British Cactus and Succulent Society (he’ll speak at its national convention next year) and the Cactus and Succulent Society of New Zealand (where he’s already booked to speak in 2008).

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But it all begins to make sense when you reach Minnich’s backyard, which is a gateway to its own kind of paradise.

There, arrayed neatly in five low-frills greenhouses and two arbors, is one of the largest retail succulent nurseries in Southern California, with 10,000 square feet of rare cactuses and succulents, sometimes stacked two levels high on homemade plywood shelves.

There are tiny jewel-like succulents from South Africa’s Cape region. There are giant leafy succulents with bulbous trunks, more than 200 years old. There are cactuses -- flowery and spiny, big and small -- from Mexico and beyond, including the largest documented collection of the genus Mammillaria.

Minnich knows from decades of field work and research that the white toxic sap from Euphorbia virosa poisoned Mussolini’s troops in North Africa; that Ariocarpus kotschoubeyanus was named after a 19th century Russian prince and explorer and used to sell for more than its weight in gold in Europe; that dinosaurs once munched on conifers of the genus Encephalartos, also known as cycads (some of the few non-succulents in Minnich’s nursery).

Southern Californians have always had a soft spot for cactuses and succulents, but today the plants are more stylish than ever, thanks to their beauty and sustainability in this region’s arid climate. Minnich is glad the plants are “in vogue,” as he puts it, but that’s not his primary concern.

His business, Cactus Data Plants, doesn’t cater to the casual cactus fan, or to people hoping for low-maintenance yards. He sells to succulent enthusiasts, those who feel for a rare Fouquieria purpusii the same way folks who show prize orchids lust after an exotic cattleya.

Like his customers, Minnich’s fascination with succulents has nothing to do with landscaping trends. He brings a naturalist’s desire to know: where a particular species grows and why, how it got its name, its place in history.

He developed the interest as a kid, when his father, a scientist working on the Sidewinder missile, would take him out to the desert near the Naval Ordnance Test Station at China Lake. “We’d see cactuses and reptiles, and I thought the plants were really cool,” he says.

Minnich got serious about succulents in the early 1970s, when he started teaching high school art. Whenever he had a break from his students -- summer, Christmas or Easter -- he’d throw on his hiking boots and head off with his young family to the California desert or to Mexico, where he’d observe the plants in their natural habitats, and would take copious field notes, draw sketches and shoot hundreds of photographs.

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Once home, he’d nurture and catalog his plants, which started winning dozens of prizes at shows. As the collection grew, he started Cactus Data Plants to sell his extra stock. Gradually, he became known as an authority, selling his plants -- which were pure and documented the same way a pedigreed dog might be -- to competitive collectors and botanical gardens, including the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

University scientists began incorporating Minnich’s field notes and photos into their research. He began judging competitions and speaking to cactus clubs all over the world, describing his adventures in the field and showing slides of the specimens he found.

Minnich discovered, he says, three major species of Mammillaria, including one named after him by a German scientist. M. minnichii is a tiny plant that grows on cliff faces in southern Oaxaca, Mexico.

“Many I have found, many I have discovered,” Minnich says. “But I’m not after the fame.”

He walks past a shelf of African succulents that grow in the cold season. “These are telling me that winter’s coming. These live just from dews and mists,” he says, tenderly lifting a member of the genus Copiapoa, a rugged cactus from the Atacama region of Chile, which receives almost no rainfall.

Even scientific Latin thrills Minnich. Cactuses in the genus Astrophytum are star-shaped, he explains, walking past a shelf of five-pointed beauties. A. capricorne has curly spines like a goat’s horns. A. myriostigma has many little spots. A. ornatum is, of course, ornate. The delicate A. asterius is “the star’s star.” Mammillaria plumosa has feathery spines. One of the smallest cactuses in the world, Blossfeldia liliputana, is named after the miniature island of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Minnich retired after 32 years of teaching in 2003, leaving him more time for succulents. Cactus Data Plants hasn’t made him a millionaire, but it funds his travels, and that’s good enough, he says. He’s now documenting the cactuses of South America, and leaves in mid-October for a two-month field study in Argentina.

Mike Buckner, a well-known San Diego landscape designer, says that Minnich’s greatest contribution to the study of succulents is his unbridled enthusiasm. “People live vicariously through the thrill of what Woody does, get a thrill just watching his slide shows,” he says.

Minnich gets a kick from them too. “It’s like reliving the trip every time I do it,” he says. “You hear about the exploration of Africa -- Livingstone and such -- and there are still places no one has been. That’s my passion, to get to those places -- to the Amazon, to the upper regions of Brazil and Peru. I’ve been in parts of Mexico where I was the first Anglo they ever saw.”

Minnich says he wants to use his retirement to learn “all the genera in the world” -- to see as many species in as many cactus genera as he can and understand the origins of all the variations he sees.

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In the meantime, you’ll find him in his greenhouse. “I need about 10 lifetimes to do all I want to do,” he says.

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Winter show

San Gabriel Valley Cactus and Succulent Society’s Winter Show is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 15 and 16; L.A. County Arboretum, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia; www.desertsong.com/sgvcss.

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